Siobhan Adcock, author of The Completionist, joins us to discuss 11 of the most bad-ass fictional women programmers in existence. Did your favorite make the cut?
The Completionist starts off with a tragedy: Gardner Quinn has vanished. Her sister, Fredericka, is pregnant, which is a miracle in a world struggling with infertility. But it also means she can’t search for her sibling. Instead, she sends their younger brother, Carter.
Carter is just home from war, and he’s struggling with a drinking problem and some mysterious physical symptoms he can’t explain. He needs a distraction, and searching for Gardner becomes his next mission.
The search leads Carter underground, where the world is full of secrets and danger. He learns that his sister was a Nurse Completionist, but he also discovers that their father is hiding some secrets of his own.
The Completionist is in the vein of The Handmaid’s Tale, which has found itself not so far removed from real life as we would like.
11 fictional bad-ass women programmers — by Siobhan Adcock
You’ve heard, I’m sure, of the manic pixie dream girl (if not, Google is happy to help you, if you dare). I’m here to argue that the MPDG has a smarter, better-educated, better-paid sister, the bad-ass lady computer genius. And we actually need more of her.
The bad-ass lady computer genius is sort of the thriller’s version of the manic pixie dream girl, but with a higher salary and a more interesting plot. Like the MPDG, the bad-ass lady computer genius tends to be troubled, outspoken, or otherwise marked by obvious character quirks. She has compelling hair. She is hot, but hot in an interesting way. She can be dorky, but only while also being hot. Very often, she is in the frame in order to pound coffee or booze and type super, super fast while staring fiercely at a screen and muttering to herself (to be fair, male computer geniuses do a lot of that, too). But just as often, she is in the story to solve the mystery, crack the code, save the world — even save herself. I would call that an upgrade, even if it’s buggy.
As a type, the bad-ass lady computer genius is not really a new development — she has enjoyed a surprisingly long history, dating back to the 1990s (bow down to qween Angelina Jolie as Acid Burn in Hackers, since you’re already doubled over laughing). These days a novelist or a scriptwriter can hardly write a modern thriller or sci-fi series without including a bad-ass lady computer genius — and I should know, because a main character in my novel The Completionist, Fred Quinn, is a bad-ass lady computer genius herself.
While Fred didn’t come out of nowhere, she is probably the most made-up thing in the novel. Because the biggest problem with the bad-ass lady computer genius as a character type isn’t so much that she’s a type. It’s that she’s a fiction.
I have worked in digital media for over two decades, for a variety of companies big and small, good and bad, and I can tell you as someone eagerly looking for them that the number of women developers I have worked with is vanishingly small. The numbers back me up depressingly well: Only 19% of computer science degree recipients in 2016 were women, and only 26% of “computing workforce” professionals are women, according to the National Center for Women and Information Technology, despite the fact that women make up more than half of the workforce and 56% of college students.
Other studies show that the percentage of tech jobs in the U.S. women hold is even lower — as low as 20%. And the gender gap is only part of the issue — there’s also a significant wage gap between men and women in tech that’s especially pronounced for women of color. And, as many have argued, there’s a widespread culture of discrimination against women in the tech world. The wildly unequal numbers of women and men in tech simply cannot be explained by the notion that “girls just aren’t into computers.”
The bad-ass lady computer genius is a unicorn. But she’s a well-paid, self-actualized, barrier-busting representational unicorn that we really, really need more of — if for no other reason than to inspire future generations of girl coders to become their own unicorns.
This ranked list of fictional bad-ass female programmers — from Cameron Howe of Halt and Catch Fire to Lisbeth Salander to Willow from Buffy to Mac from Veronica Mars — is an opportunity to highlight the fact that we create these lady hacker dreamgirls even as real women in tech struggle for visibility. Support organizations like Girl Develop It and Black Girls Code if you want to see more of this character off the screen or page, and in real life.
11. Kate Libby, ‘Hackers’ (1995)
It may not be possible to do this absurd character and this absurd (almost to the point of being unwatchable…almost) movie justice, but here’s a try: Roller blading teenage hackers take down an evil corporate overlord sys admin with a mullet. Acid Burn, aka Kate, is the sole girl in the crew, which means she teeters so perilously close to the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype that she actually has a pixie cut. That said, she’s also 10 times as cool and confident as any of the teenboy hackers she runs with, and, it is strongly implied, better at everything from making out to writing code. Empowerment! Meanwhile we get to watch long, hilarious sequences of computer virus simulations (lasers! stacks of grids! lasers shooting between stacks of grids!) crosscut with shots of supercool teens…typing.
10. Abby Sciuto, ‘NCIS’ (2003)
To be clear, this one earns a spot on the list only as a sort of memoriam, since the explicably popular character, played by actress Pauley Perette, was just written off NCIS this spring after 15 years. (Side note: Is that really how long this terrible show has been on? 15 years? Come on, good American people!) Abby was literally such a ridiculous cliche of a goth bad-ass girl hacker that she wore pigtails and a black choker necklace as an employed adult in 2003. But let’s point it out: The girl got paid. That kind of choker collection doesn’t buy itself.
9. Willow Rosenberg, ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ (1996)
Before she was Dark Willow or Vamp Willow or even Tara-loving Willow, she was a computer nerd. For the first several seasons, when Willow wasn’t issuing one-liners and rocking choker necklaces (it was a moment in time), she was hacking her way into some secure computer system for the Scoobs or getting entangled in an ill-advised online relationship. In fact it was the murder of the school computer science teacher, Jenny Calendar, the show’s OG bad-ass lady computer genius, that motivated Willow to start studying magic and embark on her path to witchdom. I can’t be the only one who thinks Joss Whedon and the showrunners made a mistake letting Willow be an all-powerful witch instead of an all-powerful CTO.
8. Lex Murphy, ‘Jurassic Park’ (1993)
“It’s a UNIX system! I know this!” Fun fact: In Michael Crichton’s novel, the task of rebooting the mainframe of the world’s most dangerous science experiment falls to Lex’s brother, Tim. In the movie, Steven Spielberg was smart enough to give that responsibility to a 12-year-old girl. Insert smug, knowing nod here.
7. Cindy ‘Mac’ MacKenzie, ‘Veronica Mars’ (2004)
Mac, the computer hacker teen genius of the much-loved mid-aughts series, helped undercover sleuth Veronica Mars crack many a case at weirdly crime-ridden Neptune High. But Mac may have reached peak Bad-Ass Lady Computer Genius-ness with her defense of the Mac OS against Linux in a throwaway argument in season 1: “I know what I like, and I like what I know!” Not the most spec-driven argument, but we’ll take it.
6. Barbara Gordon/Oracle/Batgirl (1990)
Haven’t heard that the original Batgirl was actually, at one point in her long history, a computer genius in a wheelchair who rechristened herself Oracle, and used her hacking skills to fight injustice with an all-female crimefighting superhero crew (that she founded) called the Birds of Prey? Surprise! After establishing perhaps the coolest Bad-Ass Lady Computer Genius backstory in DC comics history, in 2011 this character weirdly reverted back to a.) not needing a wheelchair and b.) not being a computer genius anymore. Why? Why does anything happen in the DCU?
5. Felicity Smoak, ‘Arrow’ (2012)
There are some lively parallels between Barbara Gordon and Felicity Smoak, a minor character in the Green Arrow DC comics who emerged into a main character — with major coding credentials — on the CW series Arrow and its spinoff Vixen. Smoak, like Barbara Gordon, is a tech genius who uses her expertise to help an antihero fight crime, and Smoak, like Oracle, does some of her best work while in a wheelchair — albeit temporarily. Felicity Smoak is one of those characters that you either love or hate, and some fans of the series blame Smoak’s romantic storyline for derailing the main plot, but for the purposes of this list, the character deserves credit for being a female CTO when high-ranking female engineers in general are in short supply.
4. Raven Reyes, ‘The 100’ (2014)
Another brilliant female coder who lives with a physical disability as just one of many signals of her physical and intellectual toughness, Raven Reyes is a fan-favorite character on the critically-adored series, for obvious reasons. Raven is both a mechanical engineer and a software engineer, as capable of building a bomb as programming artificial intelligence, which makes her a kind of STEM superhero. And as a woman of color living with a disability — in a hostile post-apocalyptic world, no less — Raven is that rare, groundbreaking female character whose story arc is not defined by her romantic relationships, or lack thereof. She really is just in the story to show how bad-ass women can be.
3. Juanita Marquez, ‘Snow Crash’ (1992)
Neal Stephenson’s novel about coding, language, and religion (among a few other Big Ideas) features a brilliant female programmer and cultural anthropologist who, just as a starting point, figures out how to make virtual reality feel and look convincingly human. While not the main character or even the main female character of the novel, Juanita Marquez nevertheless checks all the bad-ass genius boxes: A woman who fought to advance in a field dominated by men who undermined her, an accomplished technologist who’s also an insightful student of humanity, and an insatiable collector of knowledge and information that might just in the end save the world.
2. Lisbeth Salander, The Millennium Series (2005)
Tough, lonely, rude, and perhaps a tiny bit psychopathic, Lisbeth Salander is nonetheless a technological genius who makes a pile of money off her talents (albeit not entirely legally). She’s no Grace Hopper, but she still emerged through Steig Larsson’s four-book series as a digital feminist role model of a very specific sort — she uses her abilities as a hacker to fight crime, she finds her true community online with other hackers, and she finds ways to fight back when she is victimized. Inventive ways. Creative ways.
1. Cameron Howe, ‘Halt and Catch Fire’ (2014)
Cameron Howe’s excellent season 1 hair, which I am completely here for, telegraphs everything you need to know about her character: “My hair is just as in my face as I am about to be in your face if you keep getting in my face, especially about my face.” Cameron doesn’t enforce great boundaries vis a vis relationships and work, much like Lisbeth, but her path to self-actualization has a lower body count. The four-season AMC series, which ended last fall, follows Cameron coming into her own professionally, in heartbreakingly relatable strokes: Partnerships in conflict, personal sacrifices, failure, and visions compromised before they’re fulfilled. Cameron’s not only a coder, she’s an inventor, a creator — and a fully realized human being.